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Defending SEM During a Recession

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There's been lots of talk in the mainstream media about a coming economic recession. That's led search marketers to defend their craft by insisting SEO and social media are recession-proof marketing tactics that can help a business weather the coming storm.

For in-house search marketers, the key to surviving a recession with your marketing budget – and your job – intact, is to demonstrate the clear value of your efforts to the company. This is easier to do in the arena of paid search than in SEO, but is nonetheless important to both. To accomplish this, you need clear metrics for your activities, and a way to report them.

Defining Search Marketing's Value

Defining your value to the company is a straightforward process. It involves gathering historical data showing past results, and presenting near- and long-term plans for future results:

1. Pull together an historical view of your efforts
Demonstrate the dollar value to the company wherever possible. This goes back to understanding how your company makes money and knowing your role in that process. You may need to extrapolate if there are no direct paths to the monetized events (i.e., if 15 percent of visitors normally convert, assume 15 percent of the SEO traffic converts). Be as specific as possible, using page and product level performance if you have the data to back it up. What you need is a trail of revenue contributions.

2. Have 1-, 3-, 6- and 12-month plans.
Here you are showing a clear path from past performance to future potential. Your plans need to include projections based on past performance and future expectations. An integral part of this plan is your active management of the program. Show how your presence is going to influence the outcomes.

Opportunity Costs of SEO

For SEO, it is going to be a bit trickier. It's easy for company managers to lose sight of the fact that organic traffic takes a lot of work to achieve AND maintain. Your plans must clearly show what is being done to keep the positions that you have worked hard for and the efforts put forth to grow. To do this, one of my favorite tactics is to spell out the opportunity costs of each plan.

An opportunity cost is the revenue (or traffic, or other metric), that you forgo as you allocate resources to execute your plan. To make an exaggerated example of this, take keyword selection. You have time to optimize a page to "Chevy Malibu" or "Purple Chevy Malibu with black leather." Let's say the former has over million search a month, the latter has maybe 250 (I'm making up numbers for demonstration purposes).

If you decide to optimize to "Chevy Malibu", you give up the opportunity to show up on or optimize the 250 "purple" searches. To go after the over 1 million searches, your opportunity cost is the 250 searches. The reality is, we make opportunity cost decisions every day. We just don't articulate them.

How does this help you? As we draft plans, we normally eliminate some strategies or tactics and don't even show them in the final recommendations. By keeping a few of these in as options, and articulating the trade-offs, you show that just letting things ride as-is has a cost. In the exaggeration above, while your recommendation is to go after the 1 million searches, an option is to go after the 250 searches on the "purple" keyword phrase, making clear that the opportunity cost of doing this is the 1 millions searches, and thus, is not recommended.

There's also volume associated with the SEO maintenance program. If you tackle the keyword with 250 searches, how much of the current traffic will have to be sacrificed? Now, as you present this plan, it becomes apparent that the opportunity cost of not doing SEO altogether is the 1 million searches, or it is the current traffic. This is where your very presence is validated; everyone has to see that the traffic that has been built up over time will not simply continue under its own inertia.

Don't be naive about your position in the company. I just read and article in Inc. magazine about the emotional turmoil a mid-sized company CEO went through as he told 60 percent of the employees that he had to let them go. He cared greatly about them, but there was no financial alternative. You may be well liked, but your value still needs to be clear. Planning is about helping the company not only make it through a recession, but helping you do so as well.

Steve Haar is the senior director of media at Leapfrog Online, where he oversees search marketing and other vertical efforts. Haar sits on the IAB Search Committee, SEMPO Global Search Committee, and the steering committee for the Click Quality Council. He combines his past experience in offline branding and mass media with his passion for online marketing in his blog, Think About Search.

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